T is for the Twelve Labors of Heracles.
Zeus, King of the Gods, is well-known for his philandering ways, and as such, has fathered many (if not most!), of the Olympian Gods and Goddesses.
One affair that had far-reaching consequences, was his dalliance with the mortal, Alcmene.
Up to his usual tricks, Zeus had disguised himself as Alcmene’s husband, who was away at war, to have his way with the beautiful mortal.
His charade succeeded, and Alcmene became pregnant by the God.
Later that night, Alcmene’s true husband returned home unexpectedly, and made love to his wife and impregnated her.
When Hera, wife of Zeus, discovered her husband’s infidelity, she was furious, and took it upon herself to stop the birth of her husband’s illegitimate son.
She did succeed in delaying the birth, by tying her clothing in knots.
But after being tricked into believing the baby had been born, she untied the knots and Heracles, later known as Hercules, was born.
Hera hated this child with a passion, he was a living, breathing reminder of her husband’s wayward ways.
She first attempted to dispatch of him when he was still in his crib, sending two venomous snakes to bite him.
Heracles was found in his crib, playing with the two dead snakes as if they were toys.
As a grown man, Hera’s hatred had not dwindled for the Demigod.
She sent him insane, so as he murdered his wife and children.
When the fugue lifted from his mind, Heracles was filled with remorse, and prayed to his God, Apollo, for guidance.
As a part of his sentence he was told that he had to serve King Mycenae for twelve years.
Unsatisfied with this punishment, Hera and her agent, Eurystheus, then set Heracles Twelve Labors to complete.
Twelve Labors, that the Queen of the Gods dearly hoped would result in his death.
1. Nemean Lion:
The first Labor set for Heracles, was to slay the Nemean Lion and bring its skin back to Eurystheus, Hera’s agent, in Mycenae .
The lion was terrorising the people of Nemea, and the populace lived in fear of the marauding beast.
The skin of the lion was as tough as armour, protecting it from the weapons the desperate people were using against it.
Having tried all that they could to dispatch the lion, the people had become resigned to the terrifying presence of the, seemingly immortal, beast.
It was then that Heracles showed up, equipped with his weapons of a bow and arrow, a club made from an olive tree ( of which he had uprooted with his bare hands), and a powerful bronze sword.
Upon hearing the plight of the terrorized villagers, Heracles was even more determined to defeat this mighty foe.
Heracles then faced off with the lion, using all his weapons in turn, and finding them, one after the other, ineffectual.
Finally, in frustration, he threw himself upon the lion, tackling it to the ground, where he stuffed his arm down its throat and choked the great beast to death.
The real test began as he set out to liberate the lion of its skin, of which he was to bring back to Eurystheus, as proof of his success.
Heracles struggled for hours, yet could not even force a blade through the tough hide.
He was at the point of admitting defeat, when an old woman appeared out of the watching crowd.
( The old crone was actually Athena in disguise.)
She suggested that maybe the lion’s own claws would be the tool for the job.
She was right, and Heracles’ then made short work of removing the tough skin.
Heracles immediately put the skin to use, wearing it as armor.
Upon returning to Mycenae , to report his success to Eurystheus, the King was so terrified by the sight of Heracles, donning his blood spattered lion hide, that he hid from him within a large bronze jar.
From this point on, the King would only communicate with Heracles through the mediation of a Herald.
2. Lernaean Hydra:
The Hydra was a giant water-dwelling serpent.
As well as having nine heads, the Hydra also emitted toxic fumes, to poison the unwary.
At the bottom of its watery lair, lay a hidden entrance to the Underworld, a gateway the Hydra protected fiercely.
An offspring of Typhon and Echidna, and sibling of the Nemean Lion, the Hydra was a formidable beast, one that Hera was sure would finally kill off Heracles for good.
As Heracles entered the Hydra’s swampy lair, he tied a cloth over his nose and mouth, to protect himself from the noxious fumes, then fired off some flaming arrows to announce his arrival to the great serpent.
As the Hydra advanced upon him, Heracles took to it with his sword, cutting off the serpentine heads, one after another.
Heracles soon found this task to be futile, as he watched new heads growing out from the sheared off necks.
The regenerative ability of his foe had him stumped, and he called upon his nephew and friend, Iolaus, for advice.
Armed with a new strategy, Heracles again faced the Hydra.
This time, as he lopped off each head, he would dip his sword in the Hydra’s corrosive blood, using it to cauterize the neck and prevent a new head from growing in place of the old.
This tactic worked flawlessly, and Heracles had soon annihilated his immense adversary.
When Eurystheus heard that Heracles had enlisted the help of Iolaus in defeating the Hydra, he declared the second labor would not count towards the tally.
Heracles’ great victory against the Hydra was void, and he was then set an extra task to compensate.
3. Ceryneian Hind:
The Ceryneian Hind was an enormous animal that was sacred to Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt.
The Hind had golden horns, like a stag, and hooves of bronze.
It was also extremely fast.
The Hind was said to be so fleet of foot, that it could outrun an arrow.
The Hind had even escaped Artemis, when as a child, she captured four hinds to draw her chariot.
The Ceryneian Hind escaped the Goddess, as it fled across a river.
Artemis was so impressed by this agile animal, that she named it sacred to herself.
Heracles’ Third Labor was a little different.
Having proved his extensive strength, in already killing two daunting monsters, Eurystheus became a wee more cunning in setting the next task.
He knew that if Heracles succeeded in catching the Hind, he would surely incur the wrath of the fearsome Goddess, Artemis.
Heracles set out to track the Hind.
He searched its known haunts for several days, but had not sighted the animal.
Tired and weary from his search, Heracles lay down to sleep.
The next morning, as he awoke, he spotted a metallic glint through the trees, and jumped to attention.
In the distance, he observed the Hind, the sun glinting off its golden antlers.
Heracles tracked the swift Hind for many days, and through many lands.
The Hind was so fast, he found he could get nowhere near close enough to actually catch it.
Again, he decided that this task would need some careful strategy, not to mention patience.
After tracking the hind for a whole year, Heracles watched as the ever-moving animal finally came to a stop.
He watched as the hind halted at the side of a river, and bowed its head to drink.
Heracles reached for an arrow, one that was not tainted with the blood of the Hydra, as most of his arrows were.
He drew back his bow and shot the hind in the leg, rendering the animal lame.
Only then, with the Hind incapacitated, was he able to get close enough to finally catch it.
On his way back to the palace, leading the Hind along behind him, Heracles came across Artemis and her brother, Apollo.
Artemis was furious at the sight of her injured Hind, but soon softened, as Heracles begged her forgiveness, explaining that catching the Hind was a part of his atonement.
Artemis forgave him, when he promised to return the Hind to her, unharmed.
When Heracles returned to the palace, Eurystheus declared that the Hind was to now become property of the King.
Remembering his promise to Artemis, Heracles agreed.
But as Eurystheus approached to take the Hind from him, Heracles dropped the lead and the Hind sprinted off into the forest and back to its mistress.
Eurystheus was livid, but Heracles shrugged and said it was too bad that he was not quick enough.
4. Erymanthian Boar:
The Erymanthian Boar was another vicious creature that lived in the mountainous country of Erymanthos.
The Bore possessed colossal and hazardously sharp tusks, capable of tearing a man to pieces.
The rugged area in which it dwelt, was a favored hunting ground of the Goddess Artemis and also home to a large population of Centaurs.
Heracles, gaining acumen along the way, now understood the value of knowledge in his mammoth quest.
It was in this spirit, that he called on Chiron, the wise-man of the Centaurs, before he faced the might of the Erymanthian Bore.
This was a smart approach, as Chiron advised Heracles to frighten the Bore, by making a racket of noise, to drive the beast into thick snow.
Heracles did just this, and when the Boar became trapped in the deep snow, he captured it easily and without fuss.
Heracles dragged the rope-bound Boar back to the palace, to be viewed by Eurystheus.
When he arrived, the man was so terrified by the dreadful boar, he hid in his chamber pot, begging Heracles to take the ghastly beast away again.
Heracles obliged, and released the animal back into its mountainous home.
5. Augean Stables:
Eurystheus and Hera were getting more and more agitated.
Not only was Heracles victoriously completing each Labor he had been set, he was also becoming a champion of the people, having now rid several communities of the beasts that held them in terror.
This time, he had decided on a more mundane task to set the fearless warrior.
The Augean Stables were owned by Augeas, and were home to the largest herd of cattle in the country.
The cattle were a Divine gift to the King and were, each one, immortal.
Being immortal beings, they were blessed with extremely good health, and as a result, produced a prodigious amount of dung.
The big catch being, the stables of these divine beings had not been cleaned in over thirty years.
Augeas, sure of the impossibility of the task, wagered that he would give Heracles one-tenth of his cattle, if he could complete the job in one day.
Upon arriving at the stables, Heracles was overwhelmed at the site of the massive piles of dung, which, like the stables themselves, appeared to stretch on to eternity.
Again, having learnt that wisdom and cunning were his best weapons, he took some time to scout out his surroundings.
His eye fell upon the two rivers that ran by either side of the stables.
Heracles quickly set to work, piling rocks along the riverbeds.
This makeshift dam he created soon had the two rivers diverted and running right through the stables.
The fast current washed through, around the hooves of the cattle, washing away every speck of dung, in record time.
Heracles was very pleased with himself and his ingenuity, and no doubt so were the, now spotlessly clean, cattle.
When Heracles approached Augeas about his promised cattle, Augeas refused to honor his wager.
Heracles killed the King, giving the Kingdom to Augeas’ son, Phyleus and leaving with his squarely won cattle.
Returning to the palace to announce another successful completion, Heracles was met with a defiant Eurystheus, who denounced his effort, saying that he had not actually cleaned the stables himself.
He also claimed that because Heracles had been paid for his efforts, the cattle, the task had again been defaulted and he was to now be set another extra Labor.
6. Stymphalian Birds:
The Stymphalian Birds were an avian menace.
With claws and beaks of brass and sharp metallic feathers which they could shoot at their prey, they were a force to be reckoned with.
As if this weren’t enough, their very droppings were highly toxic.
The Stymphalian Birds were the pets of Ares, the God of War, and these birds were certainly fit for a warriors pet.
The Birds resided in a dense and dark forest, around the area of Lake Stymphalus.
Heracles knew that this Labor could well be his last, as he entered a forest so dark that he could barely see, and knowing his adversaries could swoop down upon him at any minute, death from above.
Knowing this, he had first gone to seek advice from Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.
Athena suggested scaring the Birds into the air, so Heracles would then have a clear target.
Together, Heracles and Athena went to Hephaestus, a God famed for his skills at the forge.
Explaining their plan, they worked with Hephaestus to craft a pair of large, bronze clappers.
As Heracles entered the gloomy forest, he began banging his cymbals together, making such a cacophony, that the Birds took to the air in fright.
Heracles was quick on the draw, shooting the birds down, one by one, with his poisoned arrows.
Although he did mange to hit most of them, the Birds were great in number, and a few managed to escape.
The Birds that did get away, however, were never again to return to Greece.
Heracles had managed to clear the forest of the dangerous Birds.
7. Cretan Bull:
The Cretan Bull was a handsome white bull that was sent to King Minos by Poseidon, God of The Sea.
When the sovereignty of King Minos was under threat, he called upon Poseidon for help, asking the powerful God to send him a sign that he, Minos, was the true King of Crete.
Poseidon obliged and sent a beautiful white bull, that emerged from the sea.
The condition of Poseidon’s aid, was that Minos would then sacrifice the Bull back to the Sea God.
But when Minos sighted the Bull, he was in awe of the magnificent creature and refused the sacrifice, preferring to keep the Bull to introduce into his own cattle’s bloodline.
Poseidon was furious at the King’s defiance and caused the King’s wife, Pasiphae, to fall madly in lust with the handsome Bull.
Pasiphae, burning with lust, went to the craftsmen Daedalus, to help her.
He constructed for her, a hollow wooden cow, in which Pasiphae could hide.
The contraption worked, and the Bull soon mounted the wooden cow, and consequently Pasiphae, hidden inside.
Pasiphae fell pregnant to the Bull, and eventually gave birth to a creature that was half man and half cow.
This creature would go on to become The Minotaur.
(The story of The Minotaur is another great myth, and one I will post in full soon.)
As well as striking the King’s Wife with uncontrollable lust, Poseidon also struck the Bull with a violent temper.
The marauding Bull was wreaking havoc on the city of Crete, so the arrival of Heracles was a welcome sight to the terrorized populace.
Having earned a name for himself by this stage in his Labors, the people knew Heracles could liberate their city from the intimidation of the rampaging Bull.
When Heracles arrived in Crete, the King begged Heracles to capture the Bull and take it away from his city.
This worked well for our hero, as the object of his seventh Labor, was to present the Cretan Bull to Eurystheus, who wanted the Bull to sacrifice to Hera.
Heracles stood his ground, as the mad Bull charged down upon him.
At the last-minute, he stepped aside, slipping a lasso around the Bull’s neck.
At the very moment that the Bull felt the restraint of the rope, it calmed down and became tame once again, allowing Heracles to lead it calmly back to Eurystheus.
As Eurystheus prepared the bull for the sacrifice, Hera’s anger could be felt.
Hera refuse to accept the sacrifice, as once more, the capture of a marauding beast had given glory to Heracles, whom she was now hating more than ever.
So Heracles gladly released the, now amenable, Bull to wander the city, then on becoming known as the Marathonian Bull.
8. Mares of Diomedes:
The eighth Labor of Heracles involved stealing the four Mares of Diomedes.
No ordinary horses, these mares were vicious and savage creatures, with a penchant for human flesh.
The Mares of Diomedes were beautiful, wild and completely uncontrollable.
They belonged to the Giant, Diomedes, the King of Thrace and son of Ares and Cyrene, himself not one to be taken lightly.
Unfortunately for Heracles, he was unaware of the Mares liking for human flesh and only reckoned on Diomedes being the challenge of this task.
He did not understand that the horses were kept tethered to a strong bronze railing for the protection of the people.
For this Labor, Heracles had enlisted the help of one of his male lovers and his friends, to help lead the Mares away from Thrace.
Slipping in to the city under the cover of darkness, the thieves were nonetheless discovered as they untethered the Mares.
As Diomedes gave chase, Heracles instructed the boys to keep going with the Mares, while he would turn back and fight off the angry Giant.
Heracles successfully fought and killed Diomedes and then made his way back to the group, dragging the body of the great Giant behind him.
When he arrived, he found the horses grazing sedately, but no sign of his lover or his friends.
Heracles was horrified when he realized what had happened, the Mares had devoured the boys, leaving only bloody rags as evidence of the atrocity.
In his anger at losing his young lover, Heracles then fed the body of Diomedes to his own horses.
The upshot of this was that eating human flesh calmed the Mares and rendered them controllable.
In their now sedate state, Heracles was able to easily bind the mouths of the Mares shut and then easily lead them back to Eurystheus.
Unlike many of his other captured monsters, the horses were too dangerous to be set free.
Eurystheus ordered them taken back to Mount Olympus to be sacrificed to Zeus.
But Zeus refused the sacrifice, knowing that the horses held the flesh of man in their stomachs, he deemed them unsuitable and sent a wild pack of lions to kill and devour the Mares, thus putting an end to the flesh eating equines.
9. Girdle of Hippolyte:
Heracles’ Ninth Labor took him to the land of the Amazonian women, a fierce race of all-female warriors, whom had perfected the art of fighting on horseback.
Hippolyte was the Queen of the Amazons and Heracles’ objective was to steal the golden girdle she wore around her waist.
Heracles, having anticipated opposition, recruited a posse to fight alongside him in his quest to obtain the girdle.
But instead of meeting a hostile opposition, Hippolyte fell in love with Heracles at first sight.
She gave him her girdle of her own free will.
All went well, until Hera, dissatisfied with developments, stirred up the Amazons by spreading a rumor among them that Heracles was really there to kidnap their Queen.
At the same time, one of Heracles’ companions, Theseus, fell in love with Hippolyte’s sister, Antiope, and spirited her away on horseback.
This caused a great battle, but Heracles was victorious and escaped with the girdle, as did Theseus with Antiope.
10. Cows of Geryon:
Geryon was a formidable Titan who inhabited a small island in Hesperides.
Geryon was a strange mass of three bodies meshed into one.
He had six arms, three heads and two legs, making him a staunch opponent.
Geryon lived alone on his island, with only a herd of cattle and a two-headed dog, Orthrus, whom was the brother of Cerberus.
As Heracles made his way to the island of Geryon, he had to face the blinding heat of the Libyan desert.
He made his way across the sweltering sands, but became so frustrated with the sizzling heat of the sun, that he proceeded to shoot his poisoned arrows at Helios, the Sun God.
Helios begged him to cease and Heracles demanded the golden cup that Helios used to sail across the daytime sky.
Helios relented and Heracles sailed across the desert and ocean with ease, until he reached the island of Geryon.
When he reached the island, he was met with the intimidating presence of Orthrus.
But not to be deterred, he took his olive wood club and struck the hound dead.
When Geryon came to see what all the fuss was about, Heracles shot him with a poisoned arrow.
Heracles was such a strong marksmen, that his arrow pierced the three bodies of the Titan clean through.
Geryon staggered, fell and rose no more.
Heracles then proceeded to herd the cattle back to Eurystheus.
But Hera was determined to make this as hard as possible, so peeved was she with the continued victory of the hero.
Hera sent a gadfly to sting the cattle, so that they scattered in different directions.
It took Heracles over a year to round them all up.
As Heracles and his cattle reached a river crossing, Hera made the water rise until the river was unpassable.
Heracles then set about piling up stones, to build a crossing for the cows.
He eventually made it back to the court of Eurystheus and the cattle were sacrificed to Hera.
11. Apples of Hesperides:
The Hesperides were a trio of nymphs, who tended a beautiful orchard in a far western corner of the world.
The orchard grew apple trees, of which bore golden apples that were capable of bestowing immortality upon those who ate of them.
The apple trees grew from the branches that were given as a wedding gift to Hera, from Gaia, when she was married to Zeus.
As well as the nymph guardians, whom Hera didn’t fully trust, (they were known to partake of the golden fruit themselves), Hera had placed a hundred-headed dragon that never slept, among the trees.
The garden was so well hidden, that Heracles had no idea of its location, until he caught the Sea God, Nereus, who pointed the way.
When he reached the garden, he came upon the Titan Atlas, father of the Hesperides.
Atlas is charged with holding up the sky, and Heracles tricked him into retrieving the apples for him, in exchange for holding up Atlas’ burden.
Being the Father of the Nymphs, Atlas was free to pass through the orchard unmolested.
When Atlas emerged from the orchard, his arms laden with the golden apples, he decided he did not want to take the weight of the heavens back, offering instead to deliver the apples himself.
Again, Heracles tricked him, asking the Titan to take back the great weight, so as he could make himself more comfortable.
When Atlas again took up the heavens, Heracles picked up the apples and walked away, leaving Atlas to his burden.
Cerberus was the fearsome three-headed hound of Hades, God of The Underworld.
Cerberus guarded the gates of The Underworld, preventing the living from entering and the dead from leaving.
Heracles’ Twelfth and final Labor, was to capture this mighty hound.
His weapon this time around was kindness.
But first, Heracles had to learn how to pass into the Underworld.
He had himself initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, to learn the methods and mysteries of entering The Underworld.
Yet, it was only with the help of Hermes, who passed in and out of The Underworld regularly, that Heracles was able to negotiate his way to the lair of Cerberus.
Hermes aided Heracles in locating an entranceway and then helped him catch a ride with Charon, the Boatman, across the rivers of Styx and Acheron and into the domain of Hades and Persephone.
When Heracles arrived he threw himself before the thrones of Hades and Persephone, King and Queen, and told them of his penance.
When he gave his word that Cerberus would not be harmed, the royal pair gave their consent, allowing Heracles to lead Cerberus back to the surface.
Heracles returned to the gateway and won over the guard dog, by lavishing him with affection, (and probably a few cakes, a favorite of Cerberus).
He then led the dog back to the surface and to the palace of Eurystheus.
When he arrived, Eurystheus was so terrified by the site of the mighty Cerberus, that he hid himself inside a large stone jar and refused to come out.
As Cerberus walked the earth, his spittle fell to the ground, from which grew the first poisonous plant, aconite.
Heracles returned the dog back to his master, and with which, he had finally completed his long labors and achieved his own redemption.
It is even said that, upon completion of his tasks, Hera forgave him and blessed him with immortality, giving him his rightful place as a Demigod.